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Verdi, La Traviata:Chorus, Soloists and Orchestra of Santa Fe Opera, Frederic Chaslin (conductor), Santa Fe, USA, 22.8.2009 (RH)

Director: Laurent Pelly
Scenic Designer: Chantal Thomas
Costume Desinger: Laurent Pelly
Associate Costume Designer: Jean-Jacques Delmotte

Violetta - Natalie Dessay
Flora - Emily Fons
Marquis d'Obigny - Tom Corbeil
Gastone - Keith Jameson
Alfredo - Saimir Pirgu
Baron - Nicholas Pallesen
Doctor - Harold Wilson
Annina - Jennifer Jakob
Giorgio Germont - Anthony Michaels-Moore
A Messenger - Lucas Harbour
Flora's Servant - David Govertsen
Dancers - Kristin Osler, Kyle Lang

Alfredo - Saimir Pirgu and Violetta - Natalie Dessay

Presenting an opera like 'La Traviata' at Santa Fe Opera gives something of a challenge to director and designer. Four different settings, just one interval, no fly tower, limited wing space, no drop curtain (so all scene changes happen in front of the audience) and no space at the rear of the stage (it is open to the desert giving audiences views of the sunset).

Director Laurent Pelly and designer Chantal Thomas responded with a fixed set of grey boxes strewn randomly across the stage. These worked well as the Parisian cemetry that Pelly depicted during the prelude (Alfredo watching Violetta's funeral), but made a slightly odd setting for the party in Act 1. For the opening of Act 2 they were partially dressed with fake grass and trees, an effect which probably looked good on paper but in fact simply appeared shabby. During Flora's party the boxes were partially covered in reflective material, giving a delightful, glittery effect and for the final scene they were all dust sheeted, one forming a bed for Violetta.

In fact, once you got used to it, the setting worked well, especially as Pelly used it intelligently, directing the cast with a fine eye for detail notably in the two party scenes. The opening party erupted brilliantly onto the stage. Pelly's costumes had the women in low cut gowns slit to the thigh, showing a great deal of flesh. The young chorus responded wholeheartedly to Pelly's direction. They made it very clear that these party guests were drunk and that the party was about one thing - sex.

As Violetta, Natalie Dessy was astounding, clad in a fuchsia pink frock with matching boots and a red wig, she leaped from block to block in an amazing demonstration of physical and musical virtuosity. Dessay's voice was in its element in this act, giving us roulade after effortless roulade. But she is a very interventionist singer, caressing and shaping every single note and there were times when I think Verdi called for a more straightforward sense of line. Dessay's Violetta was edgy, nervy, sharp and rather cruel, not necessarily a nice person. The party goers were similarly clannish and cruel, Pelly's direction here was neatly realistic. He capitalised on Saimir Pirgu's slightly inhibited stage presence so that Pirgu's Alfredo was the butt of jokes from the crowd and always separate. By the end of this act we seemed all set for a promising 'La Traviata'.

The opening of Act 2 brought both Alfredo and Violetta on, Pirgu sang Alfredo's opening aria whilst cavorting with Violetta. At least Dessay cavorted, Pirgu was more inhibited. For much of this scene, Pirgu seemed in a slightly different opera, his acting and delivery more old-fashioned and less natural than Dessay's. It was a shame that Pelly had not managed to get him to relax and give the sort of detailed performance that Dessay was giving. Dessay was, remarkably, dressed in shirt and trousers, an outfit that a 19th century courtesan might just wear in front of her lover. But certainly she would not have worn it for visitors, to conduct business, as Dessay did when confronted with Giorgio Germont.

It was in this act that the limitations of Dessay's voice appeared. Acts 2 and 3 of 'La Traviata' require something more from a soprano than lyric coloratura. Dessay's voice did not strike me as a natural Verdi voice, it did not expand and fill phrases as it should. A Traviata soprano must be able to give a rich full line. A dramatic soprano who can fake the Act 1 coloratura can become a more acceptable Violetta than a coloratura who fails in Acts 2 and 3.

Instead, Dessay used art and artifice, great musicality and her superb acting ability to create a memorable if not ideal performance. In Act 2, often singing on just a thread of sound, her Violetta was nervy, anxious and seemed to collapse far too quickly under the onslaught from Anthony Michaels-Moore's Giorgio Germont. By the end of the act, I wanted to give Violetta a good slap and tell her to buck her ideas up, all the spark that had been apparent in Act 1 had disappeared.

For the first half of the run Laurent Naouri (Natalie Dessay's real-life husband) played Giorgio Germont but we caught Anthony Michaels-Moore on his first night in the role. Frankly, Michaels-Moore provided some of the best Verdi singing of the evening. There were hints that the role might lie too low for him, but his voice filled the phrases amply, giving us long full shaped lines. Michaels-Moore wasn't the tyrannical monster but instead a stiff, inhibited, ex-military man, unable to communicate and perhaps scared of intimacy. It was a very British interpretation but one that worked very well. His duet with Dessay was moving, despite the apparent discrepancy in volume between their voices. It was here that Dessay's singing on a thread of sound began to feel like a serious limitation.

In Flora's party, Pelly's ensemble direction was as impressive as ever, with the gypsy and matador episodes presented as a bit of simple fun, an extension of the party spirit rather than a big showpiece. Nicholas Pallesen's Baron was severe but less boorish than in some productions I have seen and Dessay was stunningly uneasy and nervous. Emily Fons made a lively and attractive Flora, flirtatious at every turn. Pirgu seemed to come into his own in this scene, his anger impressive and believable. Pelly did not treat the great ensemble naturalistically and this worked well.

For the final act, there was no question that Dessay was ill. She looked and sounded it, her singing a fragile thread and bleached of colour. As a performance, a piece of acting, this was superb. But musically I wanted to hear Verdi's lines sound with more body and more colour. The contrast with Pirgu's rich, if stiff, tenor emphasised this. Curiously at the end, Pelly had the other cast members disappear, so that ultimately Violetta died alone rather than in the arms of Alfredo.

The smaller roles, all sung by members of the apprentice scheme, were excellently taken. Not only Emily Fons' lovely Flora and Nicholas Pallesen's sympathetic Baron but Tom Corbeil's lively, life and soul of the party Marquis. Plus Jennifer Jakob as a youthful, sympathetic Annina and Harold Wilson as Doctor Grenvil.

Frederic Chaslin conducted efficiently enough, but I could not always work up much enthusiasm for his shaping of the piece which seemed a little routine. Despite being well through the run, there were still the odd ensemble problem in the livelier chorus scenes.

I am aware that my views on the production were not common ones. Generally Chantal Thomas's designs were not much liked, but Pirgu and Dessay's performances were highly appreciated, with Natalie Dessay getting a standing ovation.

Robert Hugill

Picture © Ken Howard

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